One of the great traditions of the church—and amongst Anglican’s in particular—has been the reciting of the commandments. Indeed, in the Book of Common Prayer, the Ten Commandments were required to be recited at every single communion service.
Now in the early years, communion was not a weekly service. But come the twentieth century, things changed, and more regular communion services became the norm. But, despite that, the idea of including the commandments in communion services didn’t change. Although, perhaps for brevity, a preference for the Two Great Commandments was included instead.
Now the Two Great Commandments are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, each commandment is a quotation from the Old Testament. Indeed, in Deuteronomy (6:5) we read: “You are to love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” And in Leviticus (19:18b): “You are to love your neighbour as yourself”. Secondly, they are recorded in three gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. And thirdly, whilst two of those gospels were written by Jews—Matthew and Mark—and in each case the story ends there, Luke is quite different. Indeed, not only was Luke a gentile, but his version is then followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan.
When we come to Luke’s version, then, we have a unique view of the practice of the Jewish faith, from a gentile perspective. And whilst in some ways we could say, “So what? What’s that got to do with us?” If we listen carefully to Luke’s view point—of an outsider looking in—there is much in this passage that we can learn, not only about our own faith, but about how we put that faith into practice.
B. THE TWO GREAT COMMANDMENTS
1. The Lawyer’s Question (25-28)
Now the story begins with Jesus being confronted by a lawyer. He’d been in the crowd listening to Jesus, and he wanted to test Jesus to see whether he was genuine or not. So, the lawyer stood up, and raised a question of Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” However, instead of answering the question directly, Jesus replied by a counter question. He wanted to get the man to answer his own question. Jesus asked him. “What is the law that you recite?” “What do you say as part of your regular worship?” To which the lawyer replied, by firstly quoting the verse from Deuteronomy about loving God, and then following this up with the verse from Leviticus about loving one’s neighbour.
Now, at the time, the command to love God was rightly regarded as forming the heart of the Jewish faith. It put the love of God at the centre of Jewish religion. It emphasised the need for undivided loyalty to him; it emphasised the totality of mind and will that were to be brought to the worship of God. And, as a consequence to that, it recognised that the love of God—the total commitment to the creator—was to be reflected in one’s attitude towards others as well.
So, the lawyer got it right—all well and good. The lawyer was word perfect. And Jesus was able to accept the lawyer’s statement. He knew his stuff—he knew what he was supposed to do. And as a consequence, Jesus commended him for his answer. Indeed, he said that if he truly loved God and truly loved his fellow man, then he would inherit eternal life.
But here comes the twist … Here comes the difference between the versions. Because Matthew and Mark stop their stories there. The point had been made. As far as they were concerned, what one had to do was to love God and love one’s fellow man—that was it, short and to the point.
But Luke wasn’t content to leave the story there. He believed there was more to tell. And why? Well as an outsider he could plainly see that there was a big difference between knowing the words and actually putting them into practice.
Indeed, like Jesus, Luke could clearly see behind those wonderful words of the lawyer. The lawyer’s intention was to test Jesus. He didn’t truly love God, and he didn’t truly love his neighbour either. The lawyer was only paying lip service. Which is why we have the story by Jesus that illustrates what it truly means to love God and to love one’s neighbour. In other words, the need to put those words into practice.
3. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (29-37)
Now the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story that is so familiar I don’t want to get involved in the detail right now. Except to say that the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans was not good. In fact they hated one another. And that is one of the reasons why, by Jesus’s time, the Jews had re-interpreted what it means to love one’s neighbour to suit themselves. As far as they were concerned, they only needed to care for those who were either fellow Jews or were members of their religious community. And the Pharisees tended to exclude ordinary people from their definition of “neighbour” altogether.
The story of a Samaritan coming to the rescue of a Jew, after he had been passed by a priest and a Levite, then, would have been a very pointed story on the customs and practices of the day. Jesus’s call to the lawyer, therefore, was not only the need to know the commandments, but to put them into practice too. And to do so, by putting aside all personal and cultural prejudices.
As far as Jesus was concerned, we cannot keep God’s commandments by limiting them to what we are comfortable with. We either keep them or we don’t. Which is why, even though Jesus was able to compliment the lawyer for being word perfect, he was still needed to challenge him into putting into practice the things that he said he believed.
The Two Great Commandments, then, incorporate some very high ideals. They are words that have a rich history of being used in Jewish worship dating back several thousand years. And yet, the implications in those words, are just as relevant even for us today.
1. The Value of Learning/Regular Worship
Because, firstly, the example of the lawyer demonstrates the value of having knowledge of the scriptures, and the value of regular worship.
Indeed, the fact that the lawyer knew the Two Great Commandments through his learning and through his practice of regular worship, and that he was able to call upon his own resources to answer his own question, says much for the value of reading the scriptures and the practice of regular worship.
“What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” was the lawyer’s question to Jesus. But in actual fact, he had the answer within him all the time.
If he’d never read, never learnt, never met with other believers, he wouldn’t have known the answer. But he had done those things. So when Jesus turned the question back on him, he was able to answer the question—and answer it correctly.
Of course, that’s not the only reason for the importance of reading God’s word. And that’s not the only reason for the value of regular worship. But if we genuinely want to know God, if we genuinely want to know ourselves, and if we genuinely want to know what God expects of us, then those two things—the need to learn and the need to meet for worship—provide a solid foundation for any serious believer.
2. Knowing and Doing
Secondly, the example of the lawyer, demonstrates that there can be a great gulf between knowing what to do and putting it into action.
Indeed, the lawyer knew all the right words. He was word perfect. But did his “love” go beyond that to actually live a life where loving God and loving one’s neighbour, became the motivation for everything he did? I don’t think so. The lawyer knew what he had to do. But he needed Jesus to challenge him to go out, and to put his knowledge and beliefs into practice.
Now, even today, there can seem a great gulf between words and practice. After all, how many times have you talked some business or other over the phone, and the person on the other end has promised you faithfully that they will do what you ask? And yet experience tells you, not to get your hopes up and to be ready to be disappointed.
And that means that if we know the right words, and if we know what we’re supposed to do, we need to actually put the things that we believe into practice. Because if we don’t, we will be just as guilty as those about whom we complain. Indeed, we may be more guilty, because the words we are paying lip service to are none other than the words of God himself.
3. Interpretation and Emphasis
And thirdly, the example of the re-interpretation of love that was evident in the lawyer’s time, demonstrates that whilst at times we may believe that we are expressing “love” to God and to our neighbour, the reality may be far from the truth.
The problem in Jesus’s time was that it was normal to reinterpret God’s demand to love him and to love one’s neighbour, to make it mean something more palatable—something easier to digest, and something that would be easier to stand up and confidently claim to have kept. But the lawyer hadn’t fooled God, whose laws he was supposedly keeping. He hadn’t fooled Jesus, who had to challenge him to a real commitment. And he hadn’t fooled Luke, the outsider looking in, either.
And what that should tell us, is the value of periodically assessing our actions. To regularly analyse whether our actions do in fact add up to our stated beliefs—whether our beliefs and the things that we know are reflected in the things that we say and do.
Because, even today, some people see God as someone they want to keep private to themselves; or someone who they can allow in, but only to certain aspects of their lives; or someone who can be picked up—and left—as it suits. And yet the words of the commandment of God from Deuteronomy are quite clear: “You are to love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Furthermore, some people, today, define their neighbours as only those people who live next door or in the same street; or only people who fit into the kind of lifestyle that they live and enjoy. And that they only need to help people with what is left over, after they have looked after themselves. And yet the words from Leviticus are quite clear: “You are to love your neighbour as yourself.”
These words of God, then, together with the story of the Good Samaritan, suggest that there’s far more than that. And indeed, that we too may need to take a step back, and to objectively see if there are differences between what we say and what we do, with a view to fixing up any differences that we might find.
Now, the lawyer obviously hadn’t done that. Which is why, having asked him what he believed, Jesus then told the story of the Good Samaritan. Indeed, he challenged the lawyer in the process. Which is why it can be a very valuable exercise for us to to do the same too.
The value of reading the bible, and the value of meeting together for regular worship, cannot be overstated. The lawyer may have set out to trick Jesus, but when Jesus turned the tables on him, the lawyer had a wealth of knowledge on which he could find his answer. Unfortunately, despite that, the lawyer was found to be wanting, because there was a big gap between his knowledge and his deeds.
The Two Great Commandments, then, should remind us of the importance of reading the Bible and the importance of regular worship—from the point of view of learning and being reminded of what the Christian faith is all about. It should also remind us of the need to put our learning and beliefs into practice—making sure that our practice doesn’t just fit our interpretation of God’s lessons, with which we are comfortable.
Luke, the outsider looking in, has, I believe, done us a great service, by not only giving us the words of the Two Great Commandments—that are also recorded in Mathew and Mark—but by continuing the story to include the parable of the Good Samaritan. Because by doing so, he has reminded us that knowing the words is one thing, but actually doing what they mean is another matter altogether.
Posted 20th March 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis